Urbanism Patron Saint Jane Jacobs on Our Civic Duty in Cultivating Cities That Foster a Creative Life

May 9, 2016 by


Only a few times a century, if we’re lucky, a book comes along to prod the popular imagination with so powerful a challenge to our basic assumptions that it revises common sense and we begin to inhabit our everyday reality differently, looking upon the most mundane aspects of our world with new eyes. Among those rare books is the 1961 masterwork The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the great author, activist, and urbanism patron saint Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916–April 25, 2006). Upending the old dogma of urban renewal and ushering in a radical reevaluation of what makes cities thrive, Jacobs issued a clarion call for creating a civic culture that nurtures the essential elements of robust public life. Hers was a bottom-up, people-first vision for cities, in many ways a counterpoint to the top-down grandiosity of her archnemesis Robert Moses.

Several months after the publication of her groundbreaking book, Jacobs sat down with Mademoiselle editors Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch for a wide-ranging conversation, preserved in Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library) — perhaps the most direct glimpse of the ideas and ideals that animated one of the liveliest, most visionary minds of the past century.


Jacobs considers how intelligently designed cities enlarge their denizens’ capacity for living a creative life:

Big cities offer the greatest range of opportunity for people with unusual wares or new ideas. It takes a great big city to support either commerce or culture that isn’t absolutely standardized. And if we have big cities that are unable to offer services, then we are not getting the salient advantages.

What stands in the way of reaping these advantages, Jacobs argues, is the artificial lumping together of elements based on superficial characteristics — from the segregation of low-income citizens in housing projects to the clustering of art galleries and museums in designated districts. She examines the larger forces at work:

These things don’t happen inevitably. All this segregation has been deliberately prescribed — like the mammoth museums, the Lincoln Centers, the housing projects. Extraordinary powers of government have been created to make possible such islands of single use, because it was thought that this is the way to organize cities. It’s not just a matter of reversing the process, though, because mere planlessness isn’t enough. We have bad unplanned areas as well as bad planned ones. Change will come about — and I believe it will — first from understanding the problem a city is, and then changing the methods of dealing with it. But there’s a step before that, and this sounds negative, but I think we won’t really get things done differently and better until citizen resistance makes it impossible — or too frustrating — to do things as they are being done now.

Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished against confusing constructive and destructive rebellion, Jacobs cautions against the illusion that the mere demolition of the status quo is a fruitful form of advancement:

I certainly don’t think we should simply call present methods to a halt and consider that in itself progress. All it is is an opportunity to begin to do things differently and better.

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

She points to the necessity of eradicating automobile use as an example — a necessity all the more urgent today, as we are finally confronting the gruesome effects of carbon emission on climate change:

I think people are pretty suspicious of schemes that offer them nothing for something. We should get rid of the automobiles, but in a positive way. What we need is more things that conflict with their needs — wider sidewalks, more space for trees, even double lines of trees on some sidewalks, dead ends not for foot traffic but for automobiles, more frequent places for people to cross streets, more traffic lights — they’re an abomination to automobiles, but a boon to pedestrians. And then we should have more convenient public transportation.


We constantly sacrifice all kinds of amenities for automobiles. I think we can wear down their number by sacrificing the roadbed to some of our other needs instead. It’s a switch in values.

With an eye to her own neighborhood, she considers the elements of a healthy urban community:

Greenwich Village is livable, and the demand for city districts that are lively and interesting to live in and safe on the streets is much greater today than the supply… Of course you wouldn’t want to reproduce the Village, but the same principles that work here can work other places, and do. The mixture of residential, commercial, cultural, and manufacturing buildings all in one neighborhood, the mixture of old and new buildings, the short blocks. In describing the neighborhood I live in in my book I was really describing a fairly ordinary sort of city place. Its values don’t depend on a special kind of ethnic group or a high income. People from cities all over the country tell me that I was describing the kind of place where they live. I’ve been criticized for having a Bohemian or a working-class point of view. I don’t know what class point of view I have, but it’s city life I’ve been describing, and this is recognized by many, many people who live city lives. I think people who say that I am describing one peculiar kind of place — maybe it ought to be preserved, but it has nothing to do with cities in general — just haven’t experienced city life at firsthand. And they aren’t using their eyes.

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

But despite the powerful large-scale forces at play, Jacobs argues, what is preventing the cultivation of such thriving communities is our tendency to mistrust our instincts about our own needs, which in turn curtails our ability to exercise our power as citizens in having those needs met:

If it’s a community, if it’s stable, if people stay put, then you have a livable place. People ought to pay more attention to their instincts. There is an intuitive sense of what is right and comfortable and pleasant… When a lot of experts say one thing, then people stop trusting themselves. This is a mistake. After all, everybody who lives in the city can be an expert about cities.


There’s this notion that certain groups of people must be sacrificed for the common good, but nobody quite defines what this common good is. Actually, of course, it is made up of a lot of smaller goods. It’s not at odds with good for people in the concrete.


People do have feelings, they express them in every way they can, even while they are being ridden over roughshod. But they’re intimidated by experts who tell them what they feel is selfish and ignorant, and unfortunately they are willing to believe it.

Writing mere months before Eleanor Roosevelt made her timeless case for the power of personal conviction and our individual responsibility in social change, Jacobs points to one particularly acute manifestation of this civic resignation:

Suburbs are perfectly valid places to want to live, but they are inherently parasitic, economically and socially, too, because they live off the answers found in cities. But I don’t blame only the planners. By implication I blame everyone who knows in his bones that things are being done wrong and won’t trust himself enough to act like the citizen of a self-governing country. We’ve had an awful abdication of the responsibility of citizens.

Responding to the common lazy criticism that hers is a kind of physical determinism giving too much credence to the city’s ability to shape our values and our way of life, Jacobs offers an illustrative metaphor:

Suppose you are designing a room for a meeting. That’s very different from determining what the meeting is going to decide. Society is an endless meeting, where people can be heard and seen and things can happen. But what the meeting decides is out of the hands of the designer except insofar as he is another member of society. The planners of garden cities had it all decided what the meeting should decide, what life should be like for people, what was and what wasn’t good for them. This is true of all utopian thinking.


I believe that lively cities where society can operate in an intense way make meetings out of which very fertile and ingenious decisions can come. But if people are isolated, fragmented, if one income class is set off from other income classes, the meeting simply does not occur. If different kinds of talents don’t come together, if different sorts of ideas don’t rub up against one another, if the necessary money never comes in juxtaposition with the necessary vision, the meeting doesn’t occur.

Ultimately, Jacobs argues, what is keeping us from effecting change in our own cities is a certain learned helplessness that begins early in life and is calcified by the education system:

If I were running a school, I’d have one standing assignment that would begin in the first grade and go on all through school, every week: that each child should bring in something said by an authority — it could be by the teacher, or something they see in print, but something that they don’t agree with — and refute it.

Complement Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations with this illustrated love letter to Jacobs, then revisit her contemporary E.B. White on the poetics of what makes a great city.

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